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The Bold Soprano

Feminism, Amplified

Liz Phair: Dirty Angel

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Opera legend Catherine Malfitano has long electrified Chicago audiences with a succession of celebrated performances, from Cleopatra to Lulu. But she’s never brought her blazing portrayal of the wicked Salome here — until now. The singer recently talked with a virtuoso of a different stripe, one who shares her fondness for the femme fatale

The first time Catherine Malfitano portrayed a teenage seductress of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, she turned in a rendition so red-hot that its home-video release got slapped with a boldface sticker alerting viewers to its “nudity and graphic violence”. Six years later, as she prepares to reprise the role for the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new (and more restrained) production, the soprano admits she identifies with the fiery antiheroine, who beguiles her lustful stepfather with the Dance of the Seven Veils, and in return demands the head of John the Baptist, who has spurned her, on a silver platter.

Malfitano’s physical grace and vocal versatility have earned her a wide range of roles in her more than 20 years onstage. (“Getting older has its perks,” she says.) And her energy and passion haven’t gone unnoticed outside the world of opera: Her televised 1992 performance of Puccini’s Tosca landed her an Emmy — a feat as rare in opera as attracting a warning label for a steamy performance. From November 23rd to December 20th, Malfitano brings Salome’s dark spirit to Chicago.

Chicago rock guitarist Liz Phair recently caught up with the singer in Malfitano’s Lincoln Park townhouse. Phair — whose frank, insightful lyrics on her albums Exile in Guyville and whip-smart quickly earned her an international following — is herself an opera buff and Malfitano fan. And she takes special interest in Salome’s story, which she spun anew in her song “Dance of the Seven Veils” (“The odds are getting fatter by the minute / That I have got a bright and shiny platter / And I am gonna get your heavy head”). Here, the diva and the rocker discuss society’s fear of powerful women, the challenge of achieving longevity in the music business, Bulls coach Phil Jackson, and the ambivalent sympathy they share for Salome.

LIZ PHAIR: You’ve been traveling through Europe and America for your entire professional life. How did you decide to live in Chicago?

CATHERINE MALFITANO: Where we live has to do with where I’m working, in conjunction with my daughter Daphne’s schooling. The first five years of her life, she traveled with me all the time. When her schooling started, I was singing a lot at the Chicago Lyric Opera, every year — not all year, but sometimes two productions in a year.

LP: I hope for your sake you’re not here between February and April.

CM: Fortunately, I’m not. But I love Chicago; that’s the other reason. My husband much prefers New York. I think the frantic pace of New York is great, and I’m glad we check in a couple of times a year to get juiced up by that energy. Whereas here I feel that I can exist more in my highly stimulated inner life [laughs]. Which is what I like, because I’m very much an inward person, even though I live an “out-there” life. I need lots of private time as a contrast to overexposure.

LP: How did you become involved with the Lyric Opera?

CM: I sang here first in 1975, towards the beginning of my career. But my début was under the regime of Carol Fox, in the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. It was a wonderful production, a wonderful experience, except that I didn’t get on well with Carol Fox.

LP: Do you have trouble with directors?

CM: No, but Carol Fox was not an easy woman to get along with. And we had a major head-to-head collision. And at that time, Ardis Krainik, who is now the head of the Chicago Lyric, was working for Carol Fox, and she was like an angel, you know, who just sorted all the worst circumstances out. She was like a fairy godmother — she just took care of things, and she was a wonderful person to be able to relate to in the administration. So I became a taboo subject for the last years of Carol Fox’s regime. Then she retired, and died, and then Ardis came in and brought me back to the Lyric.

The Lyric is more adventurous than most opera companies in this country in terms of having a range of production and musical values, and presenting artists that are willing to do more than the predictable thing.

LP: You’ve taken on a wide range of roles, even though everyone told you not to because of the effect it might have on your voice.

CM: I think I live with the idea that we’re not here on this earth very long. Why not experiment, find out the parameters of your abilities? I’ve never been interested in the norm. It’s so much more fascinating to follow your inspriation.

LP: You perform an elaborate Dance of the Seven Veils in the middle of Salome. How do you do something so physical and then sing a huge monologue afterwards?

CM: When I was first asked to do Salome, I thought about that precise thing. I knew that I had to be in really good condition to be able to do a dance that I felt was enough of a dance, and not just a singer posing, and still be able to pull out this monologue at the end. So I put myself through a lot of physical training for that. But the dance itself differs from production to production. In the Salome that’s on video — my first Salome — there were really veils, and I was disrobing down to nudity at the end. I mean, on the video made in America, they give you a warning on the package for nudity and violence [laughs].

LP: Nudity and violence! All right!

CM: It says so much about America [laughs]. I mean, it doesn’t get packaged like that in Europe.

LP: I’m sure not. We’re Puritans here.

CM: But in this production there is no nudity in the dance. And my feeling is that it’s not necessary.

LP: When I read the [Oscar Wilde] play [Salomé, on which Richard Strauss’s opera is based], I never got the sense that Salome stripped down to nudity. I felt the dance was enticing, tantalizing —

CM: Which is something that can be kept to the highest, most tense degree if you don’t disrobe. And this production is not necessarily about having veils on the body, and taking one off at a time, which is very conventional. Instead, during the dance, Salome plays with pieces of cloth that come from different places on the stage. It’s like she’s this kid, which is very real, because I’ve seen it with my daughter. She takes my scarves and plays with them, and then she leaves them here or there. Salome is a child, a woman-child, and I love characters that have that combination, that are on the brink of realizing their sensual, sexual capacity.

LP: What is so attractive to me about this story is that Salome is clearly evil, but at the same time I find myself identifying with her.

CM: Well, I’m glad you feel that way — not everybody does. Usually the question that people ask me is, “How do you put yourself inside of such an evil character?” And I also thought, before I got into the role, How does one get into the psyche of such a character? But it wasn’t that difficult once I started to make the journey, and I realized, like you, I found a great deal of compassion for the character.

LP: She’s this object of beauty that is privileged beyond imagination, and at the same time she’s icy cold. She doesn’t have to behave under the same codes as everybody else; she really is a mythical being, in a way. She’s vacillating between being a teenager and being a goddess.

CM: Yes, the teenage part is very clear, and quite typical, in a way. I can see elements of it even in my own daughter — you know, young people want what they want, and they don’t really care to compromise their wishes.

LP: A complicated situation becomes so simple.

CM: Exactly. There’s nothing to consider beyond the wish to have something, and when it’s thwarted, the immediate response is frustration and anger. We just learn to cover it up as we get older. It’s still there [laughs]; it’s just buried.

But for me the key to Salome’s character has become her family. We have this love of discussing the dysfunctional family today, and the opera is a prime example of that kind of family, taken to a very horrific degree, because it is a family that is reveling in murder. As Oscar Wilde makes clear in his play, Salome’s mother and stepfather are responsible for the death of her real father. I don’t understand why Strauss left it out of the opera, because it would bring immediate compassion to this character. Without that key in there, the audience’s usual response is, “This is a monster.” Whereas I start from the premise of what it’s been like to be cut off from her father.

LP: I always thought her worship of this disheveled prophet Jochanaan [John the Baptist] is a way of brining her father alive again — bringing alive something better than what she sees around her.

CM: Oh, absolutely. But it’s akin to the great mad scenes: You know, these women are not mad; they’re just creating a more beautiful space in the world that doesn’t exist for them. The first time my daughter saw me rehearsing Salome, she was four years old, and we had thought a great deal about whether we were going to let her see this show. Anyway, we got over it [laughs]. But she didn’t react in any fearful way, and when she saw the scene where I was kissing Jochanaan’s [severed] head, Stephen [Holowid], my husband, asked her, “What do you think of this, Daphne? Is this wrong, what Salome is doing?” And she said, “No, she loves him, and anyway, she doesn’t know that he’s dead.” And I thought that was sheer inspiration and brillance — that one part of Salome doesn’t connect with the fact that he is dead. And to superimpose this on the moment in Salome’s life when she’s turning into a woman — she attains her sexual maturity through these moments, in a certain sense.

LP: Well, she came alive when she first saw him. He was the first spark of sexuality that she felt for herself, rather than being the object of everyone else’s speculation.

CM: But it’s all superimposed with all these other layers, too, such as her other search, which is just for love, and has nothing to do with this sensuality aspect.

LP: She’s a total stranger to love — she wouldn’t even know it if it hit her over the head.

CM: Exactly.

LP: Why do you think people so often vilify Salome? It’s so personal to many people.

CM: I think the world is afraid of powerful women [laughs]. And I don’t mean just men. Women, too, are afraid of their own power and their own strength. The characters in opera are mostly creations of men — so in a certain sense, these men know better than women how powerful women are. And audiences are horrified of this aspect of women, and explain it away by saying they are monsters. One of my underlying goals is to get people to feel the vulnerability of these characters. But I dont’ hammer at it too hard.

LP: In one of my songs [“Dance of the Seven Veils”], I turn it into this thing about the music industry. Jochanaan is the authority figure, and I am going to move beyond him because of my ability or talent musically, which is a parallel of her dancing. Salome dances to move beyond her obstacle and get what she wants; I too, use what I know how to use, which is a little bit exploitative, to get what I want. I have always seen Salome as a metaphor for what women do, often, to get what they want — seduce the man of power and use him against himself.

CM: Well, from time immemorial, women have used that as their classic weapon. I’ve been fascinated throughout my career by the women characters in opera. I used to call them victims, and then I thought, I don’t want to always play a victim. So I always find power, even in the roles that reek of victimhood. I try to convey that these are the ways that women have transformed their power, and perhaps, if things in the world were different, if there was a real sense of equality, they wouldn’t behave this way.

LP: You’ve been performing in this production of Salome for four years. Have you changed how you’ve sung the role?

CM: Oh, yes. A run of a production always goes through an evolution. And the first performance is a starting place, not a finishing place. Neither is the last performance — it just happens to be the finishing of that series. I feel that being open to spontaneity is the ideal — to always feel as though you’re doing a role that you’ve repeated many times as though you’re doing it for the first time.

LP: How do you stay open to spontaneity?

CM: You can calculate what you would like to accomplish, and that’s kind of a generalized overview, a synopsis of what you want to create. But the discovery for me always comes in the moment, and I can’t think of any other way to do it except to be there in the moment. Like the Bulls do before a game, I practice thoroughly — but when it comes to the performance, I throw the game plan out and allow a big percentage point for spontaneity.

LP: I just bought Phil Jackson’s book Sacred Hoops.

CM: Oh, I read it! It’s great. You’ve got to read that! And I love his philosophy, his approach — and I discovered it’s been my approach, so kindred spirits think alike in that way.

[Apparently, I am missing a section of this article. If anyone happens to have the entire article, let me know. Thanks.]

CM: I was very influenced by jazz and blues singers. What I love about good jazz people is that they have this incredible spontaneity, but they have discipline, too. It’s the duality of spontaneity with discipline that creates, I think, an explosive combination of possibility.

I think you’re absolutely right when you say an artist could be happy in many places. If I wanted to sing pop and rock or jazz, I know I could do it. I’d have to sacrifice this style of singing, which I’m not willing to do. But I could do it. I also think I’ve got it in me if I wanted to be a visual artist, if I wanted to paint or create with my hands, or if I wanted to direct people. I couldn’t write poetry, however [laughs]. I know that I have some limits. And I’m not unhappy that I didn’t say, become a psychologist.

LP: Don’t you wish there was enough time in life to be skilled at several things?

CM: Absolutely. I don’t know how it is in rock, but in opera singing there is an end to my career at some point, whether it’s 10, 15, or 20 years from now, and I will still be alive and vital and want to do something. I think it’s going to be great to have a second career in my life.

LP: My goal is to have a long, arching career, like yours, but I feel stultified by the expectation of a very short career. Rock music is defined as such a youth-oriented, short-lived, angry, rebellious thing. I see a lot of unhealthy personalities — and the business side encourages this — so there are these one-dimensional people that really light up onstage but have messed-up lives. And they crash and burn. As if somehow there was a conspiracy to make it short and brief.

CM: In our business, too, everyone’s always looking for what we call, fondly, the flavor of the month. But lasting is what matters in this business — which is something one doesn’t know earliy on, because you just want to go in there and get at it all.

LP: Have you ever made wrong decisions?

CM: Sure. But I never look at them as wrong decisions. Even though one could say that it was a wrong decision to sing such and such a role, because it really wasn’t that well suited to me, it also was a right decision, because it challenged me to develop technical skills that I didn’t think I could achieve, and it also taught me how to deal in a situation of adversity. Maybe I wasn’t liked in that moment, so I had to learn how to believe in myself in a situation. Maybe I wasn’t liked in that moment, so I had to learn how to believe in myself in a situation where I could have easily felt insecure, unliked, unloved [laughs], not knowing what the hell I wasn doing, feeling like I wanted to quit, I think so-called failure is the most fertile ground for growth.

One reason why I’ve enjoyed my performances in Europe so much is that I never felt that failure has as much of a ring to it there as it does in America. Here, people want to succeed so badly that they exclude the word “failure” from their vocabulary. And that’s why, when you’re talking about the rock singers who burn out, a lot of it has to do with this incredible expectation of success that most people can’t live with. They can’t even fathom the idea of failing as being something they could live through.

LP: I’ve never heard that said about America, but I see it very easily.

CM: When I was offered my first Salome, in 1990, I had to come to terms with the idea that I could possibly fail. I said to myself, Either this is going to be the biggest success I’ve had in my career so far, or my career is going to be over, overnight. And somehow, I accepted that, and it became a spur to do my best.

LP: Do you ever experience dread, like you’re tired and you can’t imagine setting out, with a turnover of maybe two weeks, into another production?

CM: Oh, absolutely. When I did Lulu a few years back, here in Chicago, it wasn’t dropped into my schedule the normal two or three years in advance; it was dropped into my schedule six months in advance. And that opera is one of the most difficult roles, musically, to learn. I arrived at rehearsal not having the second and third acts memorized, and I always stayed just ahead by memorizing a little bit each morning before rehearsal. The experience frightened me so much that I would wake up in a cold sweat, and my husband would say, “What’s the matter?” And I’d say, “I’m so scared — I’m just so nervous. I’m never going to learn this piece.”

LP: They always say that if you don’t have that kind of anxiety or crisis, you don’t reach your potential.

CM: All those little fears that we have should be seen as positives, because you can harness them, you can transform them, you can make something happen from them. And it’s funny: On one hand you go into total panic, and on the other hand, you go into what you’d call total being there, living at the edge, and afterwards, you romanticize it and say, God, I was living to the fullest [laughs].

Chicago rock guitarist Liz Phair (The Bold Soprano) won fans worldwide with her début album, Exile in Guyville, a critical smash on its release in 1993. She followed up with whip-smart and Juvenilia, a collection of early recordings. She was also featured as one of Chicago magazine’s 1994 Chicagoans of the Year (Seven Who Make a Difference, January 1995).

By Liz Phair
Chicago, November 1996

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